As you read this on Good Friday evening, or the morning of Holy Saturday, it might be helpful to meditate on the last words of Luke’s passion narrative: “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56b). Historically, the death of Jesus has been remembered on Friday, which we call simply Good Friday. The Jewish Sabbath, of course, begins at sundown Friday evening. If Jesus “breathed his last” (Luke 23:44-46) at 3 p.m., there was likely three or four hours of daylight left. Since burial on the Sabbath was prohibited according to Jewish law, and leaving a dead body hanging on a tree was thought to bring a curse on the land (Deuteronomy 21:23), Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate quickly to ask for the body of Jesus, and laid him in the tomb before sundown.
Luke tells us that the women who had been with Jesus followed Joseph, and then prepared spices and ointment to anoint his body. The Sabbath, however, came before they were able to anoint Jesus’ body, so they needed to wait until the first day of the week. They rested according to the commandment (Exodus 20:8-11).
In thinking about their resting, I’m reminded of God’s creation of the world. In Genesis 2 we read, “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2-3).
On the sixth day, God created humankind in his own image (Genesis 1:26), and, at the end of the sixth day, God, in looking at everything he had made, declared it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). On Good Friday, which is the sixth day of the week, Jesus, the Creator God in human flesh, was killed. On the sixth day of creation, God creates his image-bearers. On the sixth day of Holy Week, God’s image-bearers kill the very God whose image they bear.
Holy Week, then, serves as a kind of anti-creation. Genesis begins with the earth as a “formless void,” “covered with darkness” (Genesis 1:2), while Holy Week begins, on Palm Sunday, with the crowd hailing Jesus as king. In Genesis, God’s creativity brings forth radiant light and abundant life from the dark void. In Holy Week, fear and jealousy give birth to betrayal, denial, and, ultimately, to Jesus’ violent death. John tells us that, as Judas left the Last Supper to betray Jesus, “it was night” (John 13:30). This is not simply physical darkness, but a metaphor that the light of God’s creation, perfectly manifested in Jesus, the light of the world (John 8:2), was being extinguished. Finally, at 3 p.m. on Good Friday, it was.
Holy Week culminates in God’s very good creation being completely undone. All that we can do is rest, reflecting on what has happened, asking, “What now?” I wonder if it occurred to anyone that Sabbath day that the God who created the world and called it “very good” might have both the love and power to remake it, starting with the very flesh and bones of the one had just been laid in the tomb?
As we rest this Sabbath day, may we grieve the undoing of God’s very good creation, yet create space in our hearts for the one in whom, through love and power that is stronger than sin and death “all things are made new” (Revelation 21:5).